The best new books that absolutely nail a sense of place

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born and raised in Minnesota, and attended college in Illinois, and even though I’ve spent the last two decades in California, I feel like a Midwesterner to my core, and it will always be my home. As a teenager, I was a voracious reader, and while I especially craved novels set in my home state, I had a difficult time finding ones that described the settings I knew and the kinds of people I recognized and loved. I write for that reader now, and I adore any novel that has an unmistakable sense of place.


I wrote...

Book cover of Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club

What is my book about?

There are few public settings more unique to the northern Midwest than the supper club. In this colorful, vanishing world of relish trays and brandy Old Fashioneds, filled with honest, lovable yet fallible Midwestern characters, I describe two restaurant families over three generations as they grapple with love, loss, and marriage; what we hold onto and what we leave behind; and what our legacy will be when we are gone.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Shaky Town

J. Ryan Stradal Why did I love this book?

Los Angeles is perhaps too large and varied for any one novel to describe well, but specific neighborhoods are easier, and Lou Mathews captures the mythic “Shaky Town” (the real-life LA neighborhoods of Frogtown and Glassell Park) with the loving and honest perspective of a native son. One of the best and most underrated novels of 2022, Mathews’ hypnotic and empathetic writing brings to life the down-and-out alcoholics, gangbangers, bored teens, and local characters that give Shaky Town its inimitable verve.

By Lou Mathews,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shaky Town as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Shaky Town, Lou Mathews has written a timeless novel of working-class Los Angeles. A former mechanic and street racer, he tells his story in cool and panoramic style, weaving together the tragedies and glories of one of L.A.’s eastside neighborhoods. From a teenage girl caught in the middle of a gang war to a priest who has lost his faith and hit bottom, the characters in Shaky Town live on a dangerous faultline but remain unshakable in their connections to one another.

Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Katherine Ann Porter’s Ship of Fools, Gloria Naylor’s…


Book cover of Shoulder Season

J. Ryan Stradal Why did I love this book?

Growing up five hours away in Minnesota, I had no idea that Lake Geneva, Wisconsin – a small Midwest town surrounded by farmland – was home to a Playboy Club for over a decade. Clancy, a born-and-bred Wisconsinite, did her research, dramatizing the lives of local women before, during, and after their stints in the club with ample heart and heartbreak. Capturing the dreams, complexity, and contradictions of rural Midwestern women as well as anyone this side of Bonnie Jo Campbell, it’s become one of the books I recommend to anyone who wants to understand my home region.

By Christina Clancy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Shoulder Season as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The small town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin is an unlikely location for a Playboy Resort, and nineteen-year old Sherri Taylor is an unlikely bunny. Growing up in neighbouring East Troy, Sherri plays the organ at the local church and has never felt comfortable in her own skin. But when her parents die in quick succession, she leaves the only home she's ever known for the chance to be part of a glamorous slice of history. In the winter of 1981, in a costume two sizes too small, her toes pinched by stilettos, Sherri joins the daughters of dairy farmers and…


Book cover of Hello Beautiful

J. Ryan Stradal Why did I love this book?

An early favorite for my top book of 2023 is Napolitano’s latest, set almost entirely in and around Chicago. Sports fans will particularly enjoy a narrative thread that tracks a basketball player turned trainer from Northwestern to the United Center, but the entire book is steeped in the city, from its murals and libraries to its gentrifying neighborhoods. As a former resident of Evanston, I love it when someone gets the details right. Exquisite and perfectly structured, you’ll miss Napolitano’s vibrant Windy City family drama long after it’s over. 

By Ann Napolitano,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Hello Beautiful as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Dear Edward comes a poignant and engrossing family story that asks: Can love make a broken person whole?

“Hello Beautiful is exactly that: beautiful, perceptive, wistful. It’s a story of family and friendship, of how the people we are bound to can also set us free. I loved it.”—Miranda Cowley Heller, author of The Paper Palace

William Waters grew up in a house silenced by tragedy, where his parents could hardly bear to look at him, much less love him—so when he meets the spirited and ambitious Julia Padavano in his freshman…


Book cover of Four Dead Horses

J. Ryan Stradal Why did I love this book?

Hilarious, ingenious, and moving, this wonder of a novel is the funniest book of the last few years, and takes place in a realm unknown to most—the world of cowboy poetry. It won’t matter if you weren’t aware such a thing existed, because a few chapters in, you’ll be eagerly lost in the world, its stakes, and its dreamers. Set across varying venues and states, this isn’t so much about nailing a certain place so much as an incredibly specific scene. It’s a ride you’ll be grateful you took, even if some horses expire along the way.

By KT Sparks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Four Dead Horses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On May 1, 1982, eighteen-year-old Martin Oliphant watches a horse drown off the shore of Lake Michigan—the first of four equine corpses marking the trail that will lead Martin out of the small-minded small town of Pierre, Michigan, onto the open ranges of Elko, Nevada, and into the open arms, or at least open mics, of the cowboy poets who gather there to perform. Along the way, he nurtures a dying mother, who insists the only thing wrong with her is tennis elbow; corrals a demented father, who believes he's Father Christmas; assists the dissolute local newspaper editor; and serves…


Book cover of Coldwater Canyon

J. Ryan Stradal Why did I love this book?

Perhaps it says something about where I live now that the best novel I’ve read that takes place in the San Fernando Valley is largely told through an unreliable and chemically addled narrator. Through a self-medicating veteran named Shep and the people he encounters – from a convenience store clerk to an actress he believes to be his daughter – Kinney conjures an often bleak but never hopeless vision of the Valley. In her hands, familiar sights to us Valley residents take on unnerving new contexts, and for any readers unfamiliar with the 818, her brilliant, hypnotic, and compassionate writing will be an exemplary guide.

By Anne-Marie Kinney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Coldwater Canyon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shep has been dealt a bad hand in life. Halfheartedly raised by a cold grandmother and chronically ill following his deployment in Desert Storm, he self-medicates with alcohol and daydreams of salvation at the hands of women—ultimately landing on one woman in particular: Lila, the young actress he believes is his daughter despite all evidence to the contrary. As Shep navigates the mystically rendered streets and strip malls of the San Fernando Valley with his only companion, his dog Lionel, he takes increasingly desperate measures to insinuate himself into her life. Kinney’s precise and considered prose examines the insistence on…


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Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS

By Amy Carney,

Book cover of Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS

Amy Carney Author Of Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Historian Professor Curl up with a good book reader Traveler – Berlin is my happy place!

Amy's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When I was writing this book, several of my friends jokingly called it the Nazi baby book, with one insisting it would make a great title. Nazi Babies – admittedly, that is a catchy title, but that’s not exactly what my book is about. SS babies would be slightly more on topic, but it would be more accurate to say that I wrote a book about SS men as husbands and fathers.

From 1931 to 1945, leaders of the SS, a paramilitary group under the Nazi party, sought to transform their organization into a racially-elite family community that would serve…

Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS

By Amy Carney,

What is this book about?

From 1931 to 1945, leaders of the SS, a paramilitary group under the Nazi party, sought to transform their organization into a racially-elite family community that would serve as the Third Reich's new aristocracy. They utilized the science of eugenics to convince SS men to marry suitable wives and have many children.

Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS by Amy Carney is the first work to significantly assess the role of SS men as husbands and fathers during the Third Reich. The family community, and the place of men in this community, started with one simple order issued by…


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